By Zia Marshall
Kaira stood at the edge of the water, watching the frothy waves as they swept over her bare feet before receding into the distant ocean. The waves danced over her feet, sometimes vigorously and at other times in a smooth almost silky motion. How eternal the ocean was, Kaira thought, as she stared at it for a long peaceful moment fixing the image in her artist’s eye. Day changed into night, the seasons slipped by, but the ocean remained the same, its waves eternally roiling with froth and bubble as they lapped against the shores before receding into the distant blue and then returning once again.
Kaira walked back to her cottage, which was just a short distance from the shore. She had been lucky to find this house, she thought, as she slid the key into the door and entered. Most of the sea-facing properties had long been snapped up in the sleepy, seaside town of Kollam. But its owner, old Mrs. D’souza, who had recently lost her husband, had put up this house for sale. She had wanted to move to Mumbai so that she could be close to her children. Kaira had just arrived in town and heard the house was for sale. She had immediately made an offer – that was a little more than the asking price just to make sure Mrs. D’souza wasn’t tempted by a better offer. That had been almost a year ago and Kaira had happily settled into the little cottage.
It was a good life, she reflected, as she walked into the kitchen to fix her usual breakfast – a mug of coffee and toast with some marmalade smeared over it. Then setting the coffee and toast on a tray, she made her way to the dining table where she had an uninterrupted view of the ocean from the large picture window. She sipped her coffee as she watched the sea glittering in the early morning light like a thousand tiny diamonds were strewn over its surface.
Joe walked into the room just then. “Mooning over the ocean again,” Joe teased, slipping into a chair and grabbing a toast from Kaira’s plate. “I don’t get it, you know. Most people tire of the ocean after a couple of months. It becomes part of the regular scenery. But you are something else, Kaira! You stare at it every single day as if you are seeing it for the very first time.”
Kaira turned to look at Joe with a sheepish grin. “I know Joe, most people find it odd. But I can’t help it, honestly I can’t. I feel very drawn to the sea – it calls to my soul…”
“Oh God! It’s too early in the morning for your artist-shartist philosophy Kair, drop it please,” Joe complained, grabbing the coffee mug from Kaira’s hand and taking a long sip of coffee.
“Oh I needed that. Here you can finish the rest, I don’t mind,” Joe said, setting down the cup before Kaira and grinning impishly at her.
“Thanks,” Kaira grinned back. “My morning coffee would taste odd if you didn’t steal a couple of sips from it. But why won’t you fix yourself a cup? Or shall I do it for you?”
“No time, sweetie. Got to run. Rahul will be in office by ten and I need to run these plans by him before the client meeting at twelve and then….”
“Carry on, Joe” Kaira said. “I’ll finish up here and head for the studio. Will you be in for lunch?”
“Not sure,” Joe called, grabbing the keys from the foyer table and dashing out of the house.
Kaira’s mobile rang just then. Frowning, she glanced down to see who was calling. It was her mother. Briefly she contemplated ignoring the call. Then shrugging, she decided to get it over with.
“Hi sweetie, you haven’t called in so long. I was worried!”
“We spoke two days ago, Mum,” Kaira said struggling to contain her impatience.
“Well, did you think about what we discussed last time?”
“About moving back to Mumbai? Honestly, Mum why would I do that? I am happy here. This place is so beautiful and I am finally able to paint. I am selling my paintings and making a decent living. I have a great set of friends. Why on earth would I give all this up and move back to a crowded city?”
“But you can paint anywhere, can’t you darling? It’s not like you have a real office job or anything to keep you in Kollum.”
Kaira sighed. “I couldn’t paint in Mumbai, remember? I just couldn’t…I felt like the city was stifling me. Here I feel like I have finally found my muse…”
“Oh Kaira, don’t start all that arty talk with me, darling. It’s not like painting is a real job or what you will be doing for the rest of your life. Eventually you will have to grow up, get a regular job and settle down into a career. You were so intent on painting that Dad and I thought you should give it a go. But it can’t last forever, can it?”
“I don’t see why not!” Kaira burst out angrily. “My paintings are selling well and I am making decent money. Why do I feel I have to justify my life and what I do every single time I speak with you? It’s so annoying! Just because I don’t have a career and a nine-to-five office job, it doesn’t mean I don’t work hard, Mum! Because I do! I am an artist! Just accept me for who I am please.”
“All right Kaira! There’s really no need to get so upset. Now before I forget … the real reason why I rang up is Anita Shankar came to visit me the other day. There’s a boy she’d like you to meet…”
“Mum, stop! I am not meeting any boys! And that’s final. I thought I made that clear the last time we spoke on this subject.”
“Yes, but this is such a good match, Kaira. Why don’t you just meet him? There’s no harm in it, is there?”
“No! Not happening!”
“But Kaira, you are twenty-three darling. Isn’t it time you started thinking of settling down?”
“Ma, I’ve got to go! There’s someone at the door. I’ll talk to you later…”
Kaira set down her mobile with a guilty sigh. She loved her mother but honestly they just weren’t on the same wavelength. Her mother didn’t understand the life she had chosen to lead. She was eternally struggling to make her fit into the conventional mold but Kaira was just not made that way! Why couldn’t her mother understand?
The conversation had upset her more than she realized and she walked into the kitchen to fix herself a cup of coffee. Then with the mug in her hand she made herself calm down. If not the day would be a disaster and she would never be able to paint. And she needed to finish Lavanya’s orders. Lavanya wanted a set of six paintings for her new home – it was a large order and Kaira needed to finish it by the end of the month.
A few hours later, Kaira was humming to herself as she worked in her studio. She added the finishing touches to the third painting in the set and stepped back with a sigh of satisfaction to survey her work. Yes! It was good even if she said so herself. Lavanya was sure to like it. And since he had such a wide social circle, Kaira was hoping that she would bag other orders when Lavanya’s friends saw her paintings.
Glancing at her watch, Kaira realized it was six in the evening. The hours had flown by and she hadn’t realized the time. Walking into the kitchen, she hurriedly started fixing dinner. Joe, who was eternally hungry, would be home any minute. Kaira smiled to herself as she thought of Joe! Who would have thought that she could have found someone who would become so special in such a short space of time? So what if it wasn’t the most conventional of relationships – she cared a hoot about all that! All she cared about was that Joe brought out the best in her. She was a different person thanks to Joe. It was Joe who had encouraged her to reach out for her dreams and try her hand at painting. If it hadn’t been for Joe, she would never have had the courage to do so.
“I’m home,” Joe’s voice cut across her thoughts. She glanced down and realized that she hadn’t even started on dinner. Joe walked into the kitchen and smiled.
“Did the artist lose track of time again?” Joe asked. “Here let me take over.” Soon Joe had things under control. There was a pot of vegetable stew simmering over the flame and some fish fillets in the grill.
“Thanks, Joe,” Kaira sighed. I don’t know what I would do without you.
“Well, you’d starve for starters,” Joe replied, smiling indolently. “Come here, babe? How was your day?”
“It started out with a call from Mum. That didn’t go very well. She wants me to meet some boy, but I fobbed her off.”
“When are you going to tell her about us, Kai?” Joe asked, glancing down at her quizzically.
“I don’t know if I can. And why should I? Can’t we just carry on the way we are? Why does anyone need to know about us?”
“Because it’s more honest! With your parents, it is also the right thing to do. We can’t hide forever, Kaira! People are bound to find out about us sooner or later. Are you ashamed of me, of who I am?”
“No, Joe! Never! But I honestly feel that our relationship is our business. Why do we have to bring other people into it?”
“Because we can’t live like this forever, Kaira! Pretending in public that we are just good friends – how long can that carry on? I mean even our friends are bound to figure things out sooner or later, aren’t they? I’m asking again – are you ashamed of who I am? Because if you are, then we should stop right now! Before I start to care too much.”
“No, Joe,” Kaira wailed. “Don’t say that! And don’t talk of leaving please. I couldn’t bear it if you were no longer a part of my life. But I don’t want to share you with others just yet. Can we keep things secret a little longer please? Perhaps in a month or two we can start telling our friends. As for my parents, I am not sure…let’s see shall we?”
“Ok!” Joe acquiesced, giving in to Kaira’s plea because it was so hard to refuse her anything.
“Let’s go for a walk after dinner, shall we?”
Later that night, Kaira tossed and turned restlessly in bed. She mulled over her relationship with Joe. She loved Joe dearly and she knew Joe felt the same about her. But Kaira wasn’t sure she could deal with the relationship if it came out into the open. Deep down inside, she knew that while she couldn’t imagine life without Joe, she also couldn’t deal with the kickback if their relationship came out into the open. Was she ashamed of Joe? She wasn’t sure – although she denied it, perhaps she was. She shuddered when she thought of the comments that would follow if people knew that she and Joe were a couple – that they loved each other. How would people react if they knew the reality about Joe? But wasn’t Joe’s reality, her reality as well? Often Kaira had thought of leaving, of walking away before she became too emotionally entangled in the relationship. But she just couldn’t bring herself to do so. She knew she was being a coward, Kaira thought. She loved Joe, but she wasn’t ready to commit to the relationship. She wondered if she ever would be! And was she being fair to Joe to keep things in limbo? The questions tossed around in her mind as she drifted off into a restless sleep.
The next morning, when Kaira woke up, Joe had already left for the day. There was an early morning meeting, she supposed as she tossed aside the duvet and walked to the window to throw it open. Pale sunbeams filtered in through the lacy white curtains that were fluttering lazily in the gentle early morning breeze. Kaira showered and walked into the kitchen to fix herself a cup of coffee. The doorbell rang just then.
Who could be calling so early in the morning, Kaira wondered. Opening the door she found herself face to face with her mother.
“Surprise, darling!” Tara Sharma exclaimed.
Kaira stared at her too shocked to take in what she was seeing. “What….what are you doing here, Mum?” she asked.
“Well you won’t visit us so I thought I would come down instead and surprise you. What’s wrong? You look so shocked!”
“No, it’s nothing,” Kaira said shaking her head. “I’m just surprised to see you. And happy of course,” she added, with a bright smile. Thank god Joe had left early, Kaira thought. She would have to phone and warn Joe not to return home and stay elsewhere for a few days till her mother left. “How long are you planning on staying, Mum?” Kaira asked.
“For a week at least, Kaira or may be two. I’m not sure,” her mother replied.
Kaira’s mind was in turmoil. A week or two! Where would Joe stay for so long? And worse still what would Joe think? What if her mother’s visit brought matters to a head and Joe insisted on coming out into the open. What would she do?
The door opened just then and Joe walked into the room. “Kaira, darling I forgot my laptop in the mad rush this morning….”
“Hello!” Mrs. Sharma exclaimed brightly. “Are you Kaira’s friend? I’m her mother, Mrs. Sharma. It’s so nice to finally see where Kaira is living and meet her friends. Do you live here as well?”
Joe stared at Kaira’s mother in shocked surprise.
Kaira stepped in, desperate to salvage the situation. “Mum this is Joe – a very good friend who is staying with me for a few days.”
“Nice to meet you, Joe,” Mrs. Sharma said, smiling brightly at the two young people who stood before her. “But isn’t Joe an odd name for a girl?”
“Kaira didn’t tell you my full name Mrs. Sharma. It’s Jyotsna, but my friends call me Joe. Actually there’s a lot Kaira hasn’t told you. Would you like to do it, Kair? Or shall I?” Joe asked.
Kaira’s eyes filled with tears and she shook her head. “Please don’t, Joe,” she begged.
But Joe was relentless. She had had enough. “Why not, Kair? You have to make a choice. Isn’t that what life is all about? Choices? So here’s the choice you have to make – are you willing to stand up for who you are? If not, I think it’s best if you return home with your mother. Because clearly this life isn’t meant for you.”
Kaira stared at Joe for a long moment. Why was she pushing her against the wall? Forcing her to choose? And yet Joe had been so clever about it. She hadn’t given anything away. Kaira could still leave with her mother, right this moment and no one would know anything about her and Joe. She could choose the conventional path, marriage, children, a real family, all the things her parents wanted for her. Or she could stay here with Joe as her life partner and be prepared to face the consequences of the choice she was making.
“What’s happening?” Mrs. Sharma asked in bewilderment, staring at the two girls before her. “What does Kaira need to tell me?”
Joe looked at Kaira. And Kaira stared at her lover as if she were seeing her for very first time. She took in Joe’s tumbling, unruly mane of hair that refused to be tamed, her slim figure dressed in what she jokingly referred to as her “office uniform” – a pencil skirt, a formal shirt teamed with a jacket. Joe lit up any room with her very presence. People were drawn to her like bees to honey. And she collected people the way other people collected objects. She had a wide assortment friends and thrived on spending time with them. Her innate honesty had made it hard for her to accept the secrecy that Kaira had insisted on. But she had gone along with it to please her. They hadn’t planned on becoming lovers. But it had happened. Friendship had blossomed into love – a love that was rare and sweet and exquisite in the bitter-sweet ecstasy it brought them. Often they found themselves reading each other’s thoughts. Each intuitively knew what the other needed and gave it willingly almost unthinkingly.
Had Joe guessed that she wanted her freedom, Kaira wondered. Did Joe know that she sometimes wished she could walk away from the relationship, unscathed, without anyone finding out about it? Was Joe offering her a chance to do this?
“So what will it be, Kaira?” Joe asked.
“Why do I have to decide or choose?” Kaira burst out angrily. “Why can’t things carry on as usual? There’s nothing wrong in that, is there?”
Joe shook her head stubbornly. “Stop being a child, Kair. You know it can’t. So what will it be?”
“I don’t know,” Kaira replied, miserably.
“I think you should leave, Kair,” Joe said gently. “Leave with your Mum. Marry this boy she has chosen. Have children and a real family. Deep down inside, I think that’s what you really want.”
“Who are you to make up my mind for me,” Kaira burst out angrily.
Mrs. Sharma stared at the two girls. She was baffled and couldn’t for the life of her understand what was going on. They seemed to be speaking a different language altogether.
“Are you also an artist, Jyotsna?” she asked brightly. “You don’t look like one but all this talk sounds very philosophical to me. But thanks for making Kaira see sense. All this painting business is not good for her. She needs a good husband and some children. Then she won’t be so restless and unsettled. Go pack your bags, Kaira.”
Nodding, Kaira glared at Joe and walked out of the room. Marching into her bedroom, she pulled down the suitcase from the top of the cupboard. Slamming it down on to the bed, she opened the cupboard and furiously started throwing her clothes into the bag. Damn Joe for making her do this, she thought. Tears filled her eyes as she contemplated life without Joe. The thought was almost unbearable. And yet the thought of openly announcing that she was in a relationship with Joe filled her with horror. How would her parents react? And her friends? She couldn’t bear the stigma…she just couldn’t. The sniggers and the whispers behind her back – they would be like tiny poisoned arrows that would shatter her peace of mind. She doubted she could ever be happy with Joe, once the relationship was out in the open. Damn Joe! They had been so happy, cocooned in their little world and pretending to the outside world that they were two girls sharing a home. Why did people need to know anyway, Kaira thought angrily, as the tears coursed down her cheeks. It was nobody’s business, except hers and Joe’s. Yet a tiny part of Kaira realized she was fooling herself. Joe was right! They had to make a stand and come out into the open, if they wanted to continue in their relationship. But Kaira lacked the courage to take that stand. Snapping the suitcase shut, she heaved it off the bed. Turning, she glanced briefly at the room where she and Joe had spent so many happy moments. Fleetingly she thought of going into the living room and confessing to her mother. Then her courage failed her. Dragging the suitcase behind her, Kaira walked out of the house, her mother following in bewilderment, wondering why her daughter looked so upset and why she wouldn’t even say goodbye to Joe.
Joe stood with her arms folded across her chest watching Kaira leave. There was a flinty look in her eyes. It was for the best, she told herself. Kaira wasn’t cut out for this life. She was too vulnerable, too fragile. She cared too much about what people thought of her. It would never have worked if things had come out into the open. Kaira just wasn’t tough enough to face the consequences. The whispers and sly innuendoes would have destroyed her and slowly it would have destroyed them as a couple. Better this way, Joe thought. At least she had some precious memories to cling to. They would have to do. Blinking back the tears that threatened to fall, Joe grabbed her laptop and left for work.
Two months later
“Kaira! Here’s your soup. Have it while it’s still hot,” Mrs. Sharma said, as she marched into the room with a steaming bowl of tomato soup.
Kaira was standing at the window staring outside at the bustling traffic on the street far below. She shook her head. “I don’t want it, Ma!”
“Kaira, you have to eat, child. Look at you! You have become all skin and bones in just two months. You won’t eat, you have stopped painting, and you won’t look for a job. All you do is stay in your room, reading and listening to music. What’s come over you?”
“Leave me alone, Ma” Kaira said.
Shaking her head, Mrs. Sharma set down the soup and left the room. She would have a word with Dev, she decided. Perhaps Kaira’s dad would be able to talk some sense into their daughter. She had always been close to him and listened to him. Yes, Mrs. Sharma decided. She would speak to Dev about it right now! She had tried to broach the subject with him several times in the last two months but he had always fobbed her off telling her to give Kaira some time and space. But enough was enough! Time and space be damned! She wanted to know what was going on with her daughter. And she would make Dev talk to Kaira and find out.
“Dev! I want to speak to you, right now!” Mrs Sharma marched into the room where her husband was watching a cricket match on television.
“What is it, dear?” he asked, turning down the volume with a patient sigh. His wife was in one of her moods, he realized.
“Well, it’s Kaira, Dev. What’s going on with her? And don’t give me this nonsense about giving her space and time. She has just shut herself up from the outside world. How long can this continue?”
Dev stared at his wife. “Leave her alone, Tara,” he said wearily.
“Why should I leave her alone? She’s my daughter. I have a right to know what’s going on in her life. Has she confided in you?”
“No,” Dev replied, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes. “She hasn’t. But I think I can guess what’s wrong.”
“What is it? Tell me at once! Is it some boy? Is this why she’s behaving like this? But if she likes someone, I won’t object. She can marry him. I just want her to be happy…” Tara’s voice trailed off as she stared at her husband.
Dev shook his head. “It’s not a boy, Tara! It’s a girl! It’s Joe to be precise.”
“Joe?” Tara Sharma shook her head puzzled. “What’s Joe got to do with all this? She’s just Kaira’s friend, that’s all.”
“No, Tara, I don’t think so. She isn’t just Kaira’s friend. She’s far more than that. I think they are in a relationship! I am not absolutely sure, of course. I have just pieced this together from what you’ve told me about your visit to Kollam, the strange conversation between Kaira and Joe, Kaira’s hasty departure, and her behavior since she’s returned.”
“No, no, no! A thousand times no! You have got it all wrong! It can’t be! I can never accept that! Anything but that! What will people say? We will be disgraced.”
“But if that’s what makes Kaira happy, then we will have to accept it, won’t we?” Dev pointed out gently.
Tara sank down on the sofa beside her husband, shaking her head in disbelief. “Are you sure?” she whispered.
Dev shook his head. “Kaira hasn’t said anything to me. I’m just guessing.”
Kaira walked into the room just then. “Ma, Papa, there’s something I want to tell you,” she said.
Dev nodded. “Go ahead, Kaira,” he said gently.
“Well…I know this will come as something of a shock to you, and believe me, the last thing I want to do is hurt you, but the thing is, well… Joe…Joe and I…” Kaira’s voice trailed off as she stared at her parents helplessly.
“It’s alright, Kair,” Dev said walking up to his daughter and hugging her tightly. “No matter what it is, we will always love you and stand by you.”
“Oh, Papa,” Kaira said, sobbing as she clung to her father. “I have tried. God knows I have tried! But I just can’t live without Joe. She means the world to me.”
Tara’s face softened as she saw her daughter’s obvious distress. Placing her hand gently on Kaira’s shoulder, she said, “If it’s Joe you love, dear, then you should be with her, shouldn’t you?”
Kaira stared at her mother in surprise. “You of all people are saying that, Ma! I thought you would never agree. I was so afraid of losing you, both of you, if I made this choice.”
Tara Sharma swallowed as she struggled to hide the distaste she was feeling. But she loved her daughter and wanted her to be happy. And if accepting this relationship was what it took, then so be it. She would do so.
“If you love Joe then you should be with her, Kaira,” Dev said gently.
“Oh Papa! Thank you! If both of you are in my corner then I can brave anything. I can take on the world if required.”
“It’s a hard life you are choosing, Kaira,” Dev warned his daughter gently. “It won’t be easy you know. Society is not so accepting of … well relationships like this.”
“Say it, Papa,” Kaira said fiercely. “Use the word – lesbians! Joe and I, we are not abnormal or bad people. We are just wired differently – that’s all! I’m just sorry I didn’t have the courage to accept this earlier. I just hope it’s not too late and Joe will forgive me.”
Kaira rang the doorbell and waited impatiently for Joe to open the door and let her in. She couldn’t wait to see her again. But the door remained resolutely shut. Where could Joe be, Kaira wondered. It was just seven in the morning. She couldn’t have left for work already. Perhaps she was traveling. Or had she left for good! Lost in thought, Kaira made her way to the beach almost unthinkingly. And there by the seashore, she saw a familiar figure staring out at the sea. Silently, she walked up to Joe and stood by her.
“Most people get tired of the sea after some time. To them it becomes part of the scenery. But you are staring at it as if you are seeing it for the very first time,” Kaira whispered softly.
“That’s just me missing my artist-friend,” Joe said, smiling even as tears welled up in her eyes.
“Can you ever forgive me, Joe?”
“What’s there to forgive? I love you – it’s as simple as that,” Joe said, twining her hand through Kaira’s as they stared at the vast blue expanse of the ocean stretching endlessly before them.
“Still? After everything I did?” Kaira asked in a soft whisper.
“Always,” Joe replied, putting her arm around Kaira’s shoulder and leading her back home.
About the Author:
Zia Marshall is a Learning Designer and Communication Specialist skilled in performance and competency development for personal and professional growth. She designs and writes context-sensitive, solution-oriented e-learning, blended learning and mobile learning courses for corporate houses like Wipro, Infosys, HCL, DHL and also for the education sector. Her articles have been published in http://www.selfgrowth.com/, https://elearningindustry.com/, http://havingtime.com/, https://overcomingms.org/community/. Her short story ‘The Choice’ was published in the May 2018 issue of Adelaide Literary magazine.